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5 potential mental health benefits of deleting social media

Thinking of going on a social media cleanse? Here's what you need to know.

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If there were ever a time to think about taking a social media cleanse, it’s now. As we head into an election season marked by civil unrest and the coronavirus pandemic, it’s tempting to throw your phone out the window or, at the very least, unplug. Whether it’s the latest pandemic news, rants from relatives with questionable political views, or FOMO-inducing vacation selfies from your friends—there’s never been a better time to consider a social media cleanse. But if you’re wondering how you can break away when the world seems to implode every few minutes, you’ve come to the right place. Below you’ll find everything you need to know about taking a social media cleanse, including more than a few benefits.

What is a social media cleanse?

"Social media cleanse"—a fancy term for taking a break from social media—has become a buzz-phrase in our increasingly plugged-in society. That’s probably because there’s a long history of what one might call “the celeb social media cleanse.” In December 2015, Ed Sheeran took an indefinite hiatus from Instagram. (He also stepped away in December 2019 and recently returned to announce his daughter's birth.) Demi Lovato, who has a historically tumultuous relationship with the Twitterverse, has stepped away from social media numerous times so that she doesn’t "have to see what some of y'all say." Chrissy Teigen, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, and a handful of other celebs have all followed suit at different points—seeking respite from the realm of mirror selfies, nonstop notifications, and internet trolls, if only for a mere 24 hours. And we probably all know someone who at some point the past few years has taken time away from social media.

You might need a social media cleanse too.

Jut about anyone can absolutely benefit from taking a social media break. It all comes down to whether your time on social media is making you feel more connected or, well, less.

“Seeing others’ curated, polished images of only happy moments or attractive photos can set up an unrealistic expectation of ourselves and the destructive experience of constantly comparing oneself with others,” Christine Moutier, M.D., practicing psychiatrist and chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), previously told SELF.

She explained that we might find ourselves feeling more disconnected and isolated when we're overusing social media. This is especially true if you’re already dealing with self-esteem, anxiety, or depression (or general stress from a pandemic). So if you’re feeling any of those feelings, it could be time to take a break.

Okay, but how do you do a social media cleanse?

In a world where we go live on Instagram to brush our teeth, it's no surprise many of us have glamorized the idea of taking a break from the digital and getting back to our pre-technology roots. But it’s not really that glamorous. It basically involves temporarily (or permanently) deactivating your social media accounts and deleting the apps from your phone for an extended period of time. This could be a few days, weeks, months, or even an entire year—the choice is yours.

It’s easy enough to delete a few apps from your phone, but if you’re worried about maintaining your cleanse, there are apps, like Freedom and Self Control, that can keep you from accessing Instagram and Facebook on your phone and computer as well.

Are there actual benefits to taking a social media cleanse?

Every time I step away from Twitter, or remove Instagram from my phone, or temporarily deactivate my Facebook account, the same questions arise: Is deleting social actually doing anything for my mental health? Are all those TikToks, Snapchat stories, Instagram double-taps, and Facebook updates impacting my life that much? Or am I just making these periodic forays into the land of no social media for naught?

I posed these questions to a couple of experts. Their consensus: Social media is associated with some bad stuff, but it's associated with a bunch of good stuff too. If you're feeling fine about your technology habits, there's no need to guilt yourself into a social media cleanse. But if your affinity for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, or any social media app is causing you a ton of stress or getting in the way of your life, then taking a break might be helpful. Here, six potential mental health benefits of a temporary social media cleanse.

1. It might help you sleep better.

Raise your hand if you sleep with your phone? This is a pretty common experience, but it can take a toll on your sleeping habits. As SELF previously reported, artificial light (like from your phone or your TV) can interfere with your body's production of melatonin—the hormone responsible for helping you get to sleep. So, yeah, looking into that brightly lit social media void right before you settle in for some shut-eye can disrupt your ability to fall asleep. (You're not doing yourself any favors when you try to assuage your insomnia by checking Instagram or scrolling through your Facebook feed either.) Needless to say, separating yourself from social media might lead you to spend less time on your phone—which might help you get to sleep faster.

2. It can help you to reprioritize more personal forms of interaction.

"Social media can be a great tool for keeping in touch with friends and family, but excessively using social media—at the expense of in-person interactions with friends or family—can negatively impact relationships and well-being," Jacqueline Nesi, a clinical psychology Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina, tells SELF.

I know seeing friends and family IRL isn’t super realistic right now, but that doesn’t mean that all of our interactions have to happen through Instagram DMs. Consider getting creative: Try writing an actual letter (using the United States Postal Service) or making time to do video calls with the people you love instead of yelling on Facebook at people you haven’t actually seen in over 15 years.

3. It might help you relax a little bit more.

A 2017 meta-analysis published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking looked at 61 studies to assess the very common claim that excessive social media and technology use is associated with things like deceased self-esteem, loneliness, and depression. But the researchers warn these associations could be slightly overstated, and even if relationships exist between usage and bad stuff, that doesn't necessarily mean that technology and social media causes it.

Still, Jacob Barkley, Ph.D. and psychology professor at Kent State University, tells SELF that taking a break from technology could help some people mitigate anxiousness. For one thing, it could lessen the obligations some people associate with constant communication. Responding to new texts, emails, and Facebook messages nonstop can become stressful, and getting away from that—even for just a day—can feel great. (Barkley suggests setting up an automatic email reply to give people a heads up that you're on hiatus, so you don't have to worry about missing any urgent messages.)

4. It can help curb your FOMO.

Another huge plus of getting off social media? Avoiding the oh-so-daunting FOMO, or fear of missing out. "When you're linked up to this huge network through this one device, [you can] feel that where you are isn't where it's at," Andrew Lepp, Ph.D. and professor researching media use and behavior at Kent State University, tells SELF. "It's almost natural to think that among all these other places there must be one that's more interesting than where you are right now."

But obviously FOMO goes both ways. For some people, actively avoiding social media can create a FOMO all its own—for example, worrying that you'll miss a friend's big life announcement on Instagram or forget to wish someone a happy birthday because you missed a Facebook reminder.

5. It can free you up so that you have more time for other things.

The logic is simple: If you stop dedicating time to one thing, you free up for time for other things.

Getting out from behind a screen might inspire you to get out a little more. Maybe for a walk or some exercise (which is associated with a bunch of great things, including decreased anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America). Lepp says he and his family go tech-free every Sunday—spending their time hiking or enjoying a nice meal together instead. You might prefer to spend your time painting, going to the park, hanging out with friends, volunteering, working out, cooking, or doing a whole range of other things. The social media–free world is your metaphorical oyster; do with it what you will.

You can ease back into social media whenever you're ready.

Just as you’ve set the parameters for taking a social media break, you’re in charge of how you ease back in. During this time away, maybe you’ve figured out which social media platforms really stress you out. If so, you can decide to keep those off of your phone indefinitely. Or maybe this time away has inspired you to log back in and unfollow (or mute) some people so that you’re not seeing them on your feed. Maybe you loved your time away so much that you’ve decided to make this a quarterly (or weekly) thing.

As you ease back into life post-cleanse, you should also consider keeping any new hobbies or habits you picked up during your hiatus. If getting off of TikTok helped you get outside more, then—by all means—try to keep that momentum as you ease back into your normal social media routine.

Mostly, know that you can take small breaks whenever you want—you don’t need to call it a social media cleanse. You can just delete the apps anytime it’s stressing you out and redownload them when you’re ready.

A final reminder: There's no need to give up technology altogether if you don't want to.

This list of potential benefits is just that—a list of potential benefits. It's not a point-by-point thesis urging you to sacrifice your social media accounts to the technology-free gods. If you feel good about your level of social media use, keep doing your thing. If you don't, then you might consider changing things up—but even then you don't have to drop everything. You could take a break from social media once a week, or delete some apps from your phone, or simply put your phone into airplane mode for an hour or so each week. You have plenty of options. And the most important thing is that you do what makes the most sense to you.

– By Lindsey Lanquist

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